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Hunting al Qaeda, Part I of III


Hunting al Qaeda, Part I of III

Witches Sink, Insurgents Float

American Soldiers at War: 1-12 CAV in Baqubah. Bradley commander giving me a lift from FOB Warhorse to COP White Castle.

Writing these words from downtown Baqubah at a place called Combat Outpost White Castle, I am surrounded by soldiers from Alpha Company 1-12 Cav who are preparing for combat. Tomorrow [15 July], they will clear a dangerous palm grove that abuts the Diyala River, a place where just last night approximately 7 suspected enemy were killed by American forces. Among the dead apparently were several members of Tonto’s family.

But before tomorrow’s mission, there is today’s mission, which includes linking up with 1920 Revolution Brigades [1920s] to swap information. Open enemies of the Coalition until recently, the 1920s are proficient fighters who have joined the Coalition to destroy al Qaeda. At the conclusion of that meeting, our destination will be a potato chip and juice factory, and a manager who wants to talk about jump-starting the business.

Before our Bradleys roll, a 20-year-old U.S. Soldier from Kiev, Ukraine sees my camera and begins telling me about a Russian journalist who had come here some months ago. Unlike me, Dmitry Chebotayev was a true war correspondent experienced at covering conflicts. The soldiers told me that Dmitry was good; they liked him.

The soldier was Stanislav Mykhaylichenko. Stanislav’s father had fought in Afghanistan, but never talked to his son about it. Stanislav’s mother left his father in Kiev, where he lives today, taking her two children with her to New York. Stanislav was in Manhattan with his mom and sister when the jets crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Although he was only 14, Stanislav said he knew that military service was in his future. He joined the American Army and has been fighting in Baqubah for about 11 months.

He’s 20 now; but like many young veterans he seems twice that. It’s almost like talking with a 40-year-old man, although glimpses of Stanislav’s youth shine through at the oddest moments, like when he mentioned he’ll soon be 21 and allowed to drink.

Stanislav told me about Dmitry, and how they’d conversed in Russian for hours. He said Dmitry had covered Chechnya, Baghdad and other places, and like many people, thought those fights prepared him to manage the danger in Baqubah, where the enemy was as good as or better than any in Iraq. Dmitry had been looking for action and despite the warnings of this seasoned 20-year-old soldier to be careful looking for action here in Baqubah, Dmitry pushed on. There was genuine sadness in his voice when Stanislav related how he received news the next day that the Stryker carrying Dmitry into the action he craved had been obliterated by a gigantic bomb in Baqubah. Dmitry and the soldiers were killed.

Russian Photojournalist Dmitry Chebotayev Killed In Iraq

May 07, 2007
By Daryl Lang
Photojournalist Dmitry Chebotayev was killed in a bombing Sunday while on assignment in Iraq, according to news reports and his agency, World Picture News.

Chebotayev was traveling with U.S. forces in Diyala province when their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. Six American soldiers were killed and two were wounded, according to the U.S. military. Russian news organizations identified Chebotayev as one of the casualties on Monday.

Chebotayev was covering the war for Russian Newsweek and had been in Iraq since March. He was in his late 20s; different reports listed his age as 27 or 29.

“Everyone here loved him, and loved working with him. He was a cheerful person who loved life,” Russian Newsweek editor Leonid Parfyonov told the Associated Press.

“While Dmitry was an experienced conflict photographer, he was killed at a time and place where experience means so little for members of the press,” said WpN editorial director Carlo Montali in an e-mail. “As a photo contributor to WpN, people in contact with him at the agency remember Dmitry as a positive and thoughtful person.”

This was Chebotayev’s first trip to Iraq and he was scheduled to return home to Moscow soon, Montali said. Chebotayev has also covered conflicts in Chechnya and the Middle East.

No journalist who comes to this war with the intention of seriously covering it over the long term can also realistically hold any expectation of returning home unscathed. It’s that dangerous here. It’s particularly dangerous for journalists because the media, in the hands of a ruthless enemy, is a powerful weapon system. Al Qaeda’s ability to manage and exploit media resources—theirs and ours—magnifies its impact.

Although clearly not the only terrorist group in Iraq, al Qaeda has been singularly effective in achieving its goal of fomenting civil war, especially in places like Diyala Province and its capital Baqubah, which began this year as one of the deadliest battlegrounds in Iraq. Journalists like Dmitry who ply their trade often pay the ultimate price to observe and report the truth of this place.

Our people are at war.

After Stanislav finished telling me Dmitry’s story on 14 July, 1st Platoon 1-12 CAV from Fort Hood launched on a mission down the same roads.

Light streamed through periscopes into the otherwise dark, hot Bradley packed with soldiers ready to burst out onto the open Baqubah road as soon as the ramps dropped. Once out, the soldiers sprinted for cover. Although the heat was extreme, it was better than what was available in the back of the Bradley where noise, darkness, and a lack of air conditioning combined with the prospect of being trapped in tangled wreckage, burning alive. But now that we were out, and finding scant cover on the garbage- and metal-strewn streets, I couldn’t help thinking, “Mad Max might feel at home.” Sniperville. It’s like deer hunting where the bucks have rifles and are excellent hiders.

The soldiers were spread out, and moments later were moving into the murk of the built-up area. Every building was scarred by war. The streets were mostly vacant. Every part of every building, every abandoned tire or crushed can could be a bomb. Snipers could shoot from afar and melt away.
Deserted streets emptied by civil war that was allowed to fester because people would not admit there was civil war.

Block after block we moved. The soldiers had brought along an officer who was not infantry and who was not ready for the heat and combat movement. He was having serious trouble, so they slowed down.

Streets of despair.
Everything is a sharp, jagged trap. Every cut can allow infection from drug-resistant bugs.
The “Baqubah Guardians.”

Soon we met up with a group of 1920s men; I counted 19. They were outfitted with AKs and ammo pouches. Most did not want their photos taken, but this man wanted everyone to see, and he threw his arm around one of our soldiers and pointed to my camera. Our guys do not trust the 1920s, but the relationship is working when it comes to killing al Qaeda and reconstruction in Baqubah. Al Qaeda only knows how to kill and intimidate. 1920s are concerned about water projects and so forth, and they help with more than fighting. Their goals include returning Baqubah back into civilization.

A few months ago we called them terrorists. Today we call them Concerned Local Nationals. When we were in a good mood, we used to call them illegal or rogue militias. Now we call them Neighborhood Watches, or in this case, “Baqubah Guardians.” It’s truly working well. They do not have uniforms and most who wish to join have not been hired as policemen yet.

Our enemies in Iraq have become good at copying Iraqi and Coalition uniforms, and so simple recognition symbols are used, good only for one day, and secret only until the moment they are first used. [No secrets are given away here; the enemy has been using such signals for years in this and other wars.] The “far recognition signal” for today was a red piece of tape bound around the arm.

One of the 1920s guys smiled and tied a red tape around my arm. In the photo above, the red tape can be seen. The tape was a “far signal,” but for close recognition, sometimes, for instance, a car will have a tiny piece of tape of a certain color. It’s amazing how many cars have tape on them. Or in the case of these guys, if you looked closely at their clothing, they all are wearing something red, like an insurgents’ St. Valentine’s Day parade. All had at least a tiny sliver of red on their clothing. Running shoes with a tiny red stripe. Cap with red writing, perhaps. Shirt with red logo. None of this is a secret; what is secret is the particular recognition signal for any given day.

This new cooperation between the Coalition and former Sunni insurgent groups like the 1920s is part of what is meant by the talk about “political solutions.” [Such as the report General Petraeus just delivered to the Senate on September 10 and 11 in Washington]. We didn’t come here to fight every Iraqi, and the original reasons we had for coming here seem to have been forgotten many times over.

But while we didn’t come here to fight al Qaeda, early and questionable policy decisions allowed them to become one of our biggest problems in Iraq. The many species of enemy here make it hard to keep track of the shifting team rosters: they seem to swap and trade into ever new franchises. Even the experts don’t always seem to know who all is fighting, who the leaders are, or their goals. Some enemy groups make public statements about their goals, while others just seem to kill and destroy.

According to an academic report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies entitled “Iraq’s Sunni Insurgents: Looking Beyond Al Qa’ida,” Anthony H. Cordesman the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy writes:

Iraqi Resistance Movement—1920 Revolution Brigades
The Iraqi Resistance Movement—1920 Revolution Brigades was established in June 2003. The group is comprised of former Iraqi Army officers, and is an umbrella organization for over a dozen “brigades.” The group denies connection to the Ba’ath Party. Its spokesman is Shaykh Abdullah Sulayman al-Umari.

Its primary objective was to drive coalition forces from Iraq and establish a nationalist government with Islamic values, including justice and equality.

I wondered if there was any truth to that. In the courtyard where we were standing with at least 19 men of the 1920s, I looked over to where they had been sitting on the grass. And there was a book. I asked one of the 1920s guys to pick it up for a photo:
The interpreter said the book was one of Islamic verses, and it gave instructions on how to live life.

The academic paper went on to describe the 1920s:

The ideology of the group was to implement the law of Allah on earth and to rid Muslims of any deviations and non-Islamic practices. It has sworn to continue jihad until they have achieved victory or martyrdom.

They were well armed.

It cooperates against U.S. and Iraqi forces and those who worked for them. It does not attack civilians or vital infrastructure, and does not permit attacks on schools. The group claimed it has carried out over 5,000 attacks in 2006, killing over 2,000 U.S. troops, and wounding more than 7,000. It operates in al-Anbar, Baghdad and Diyala.

Unlike al Qaeda, the 1920s have self-imposed boundaries on their behavior. “Does not attack civilians or vital infrastructure, and does not permit attacks on schools.” Nowhere have I seen in their stated goals an intention to attack the West. Nowhere in their stated goals is an intention to set up terror networks around the world.

They want to kick us out of Iraq and shape their own futures with their own hands, but al Qaeda and others were stealing that chance. And so the 1920s reached out to Americans. Their end goal still includes getting us ushered out the door: something they are clear about. This means we have further common interests; we want to walk out that door just as fervently, but we don’t want to watch the house full of kids burn down behind us when we leave. Neither do they.

And so there we were, working alongside members of a proven, wily, and worthy adversary: The 1920 Revolution Brigades. The local chapter was pointing out information to help us kill al Qaeda, and we were planning on a link-up for future operations. After our meeting with the guys who had been successfully killing us for the past four years, we walked to a nearby potato chip factory so the Civil Affairs people could complete an assessment of challenges to getting that factory working again.

The manager said the factory employs about 175 people when it’s operating. Iraq grows potatoes, but the potatoes needed for this factory happen to be grown in Syria and Jordan, he said. The manager said they needed those potatoes, and of course, electricity, water, and so on. Every item on his list would be readily available with one simple change in the local atmosphere: security.

We toured the potato chip factory and the silent machines, and there was also a juice plant and the manager offered juice, which we drank, because it was scorching hot in the body armor and helmets. A few local vendors arrived and loaded their carts. Apparently the machines run at least part time because there was a small inventory in one of the warehouses. The people there were happy to talk with American soldiers and were good to us.
Money changed hands between Iraqi buyers and sellers.
Annotations put to ledger. The front manager was sitting outside, smoking with his ledger on a table. There were a few plastic chairs, he invited us to sit, and the Civil Affairs people asked more questions.

The potato chip factory manager welcomed us inside his offices. The offices must have been nice at one time. Before the Iraqi Army came.

He said the Iraqi Army did this. Ransacked the offices. Where is hope when it seems everyone wants to crush you?

The manager said this was the son of the owner. The owner had died somehow, but he said the son was murdered by al Qaeda. It was the Iraqi Army, he said, who smashed the glass on the photo.
For shame. Occasionally, but rarely, I have seen our own forces do the same. Each time there was a weak leader behind it, and something in particular had set them off. I had seen it happen a few times in 2005, but not in 2007. Those times in 2005 were rare exceptions. Largely due to the fact that our people tend to treat the Iraqis well, we are gaining moral high ground.
But still . . . for shame when it happens. The manager said Iraqi soldiers shot the safe. Bullets still stuck in some of the holes. And so, the question is, if an Iraqi man who saw this happen to his office also saw people planting a bomb to kill the same soldiers, what should he do?
After that sad encounter, we walked out to the Bradleys, and an Iraqi man came by with this bike. An American lieutenant asked if he could ride it, and the Iraqi man laughed at the spectacle.
We returned to COP White Castle. No showers, crowded conditions and plenty of combat.
The platoon was relieved by another. The next morning would bring a dangerous mission and death.
The room was crowded with cots. The soldiers cleaned their weapons and prepared their gear for several hours.
Toward the end, the leaders checked and re-checked gear: PCI they call it. “Pre Combat Inspection.” After the PCI, the soldiers were ordered not to touch their gear until the mission, so that nothing would be taken off and forgotten, and no mistakes would be made with gear.

The manner of meticulous preparations showed these soldiers had seen a lot of combat. Calm, professional, but they had an edge. They checked everything over and over, and checked each other’s gear. I felt more comfortable after seeing this.

One soldier asked who would carry the Holy Hand Grenade, and everyone laughed.

Fragmentation grenades, or “frags,” are dangerous to carry and use. Tape is kept around the pin top, and more tape on the lever. Young soldiers are only allowed to carry them in the most dangerous environments. It’s very easy to accidentally kill yourself or a buddy with a frag. Each soldier carried two.

The Holy Hand Grenade.
After all the preparations, a few soldiers worked out, using MRE cases for a bench.

As the time approached 2100 hours, the briefings for platoon and squads were wrapped up. Hydrate, and hydrate some more. Tomorrow will bring a hot and dangerous mission. A no-name operation. Just a mission. And there would be death.

End of Part I of III


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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